Facebook has identified a coordinated political influence campaign through dozens of inauthentic accounts on its platform ahead of November’s U.S. midterm election, it announced Tuesday.
It revealed it has suspended 32 accounts ‘because they were involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior’.
The social network published a small number of examples of posts from the accounts which included anti-Trump material and racially-charged posts, as well as a feminist post.
But the social network did not say if they were representative of the output of the accounts as a whole and added: ‘We’re not characterizing the broad nature of the content at this point.’
But Democratic politicians said it was the work of the Kremlin and demanded more action to prevent further meddling.
Fake event: Facebook said this anti-‘Unite the Right’ event was set up by a fake account and that genuine ones then reposted it. Six hundred users had said they would attend
Eye of the storm: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s social network said it had found a new attempt to meddle in the U.S. elections – this time the mid-terms which will be seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump
Anti-Trump event: This was one of the around 30 fake events created by the fake accounts exposed by Facebook Tuesday
Actual protest: This was the anti-Trump and ‘anti-fascist’ event in Times Square which the fake account promoted. Facebook did not provide the date of the fake account’s post, meaning it is impossible to know if it was the first to suggest it or was repeating calls made elsewhere
Memes: The fake accounts created pages which were clearly designed to be shareable. By reacting to them, genuine users prompted the pages to show up in their own timelines, meaning that their friends would then also see them
Protest: The ‘reSisters’ page said ‘The Trump regime is illegitimate’ and was one of a series of profiles revealed by Facebook on Tuesday
Among the new accounts were one called ‘Resisters’ which promoted a fake anti-right wing protest in August in Washington D.C.
It said 2,600 people had expressed interest in the event, with 600 planning to attend the protest at a park close to the White House.
Other promoted anti-Trump memes, including one calling for him to resign, while others were related to African-American and Native American movements.
One encouraged participation in a demonstration against fascism in Times Square last November.
Hundreds of people turned up for the event, but it was widely advertised on other profiles, and it is unclear if the fake account was the one which started the event.
‘This kind of behavior is not allowed on Facebook because we don’t want people or organizations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they’re doing,’ Facebook said in a posting.
During a conference call Tuesday, Facebook executives declined to paint a broader nature of the pages, including whether they included a range of political positions.
Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said that the attempts to manipulate public opinion would likely become more sophisticated to evade Facebook´s scrutiny, calling it an ‘arms race.’
‘This kind of behavior is not allowed on Facebook because we don’t want people or organizations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they´re doing,’ the company said in a blogpost.
The Facebook exectives also did not say whether any of the activity mentioned specific candidates or politicians, and were careful to say that Facebook is not ‘publicly’ linking the activity to any group or government.
But it added that it still does not know who was behind the coordinated campaign saying they had gone to great lengths to keep their true identities secret.
‘It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past,’ it said.
‘We believe this could be partly due to changes we’ve made over the last year to make this kind of abuse much harder.’
Virginia Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, called the disclosure ‘further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation.’
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, in a statement urged Facebook to move against foreign groups trying to sway American voters and to warn legitimate users that such activity, as seen in 2016, is recurring this year.
‘Today’s announcement from Facebook demonstrates what we’ve long feared: that malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously-identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate,’ Schiff said.
The earliest page was created in March 2017. Facebook says more than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the fake pages. The most followed Facebook pages had names such as ‘Aztlan Warriors,’ ”Black Elevation,’ ”Mindful Being,’ and ‘Resisters.’
Facebook didn’t provide detailed descriptions of those pages. But the names it released are reminiscent of groups set up by Russian agents to draw in and manipulate Americans with particular ethnic, cultural or political identities ahead of the 2016 election. That effort targeted people with both liberal and conservative leanings.
Racial charge: Some of the material appeared to be an attempt to piggyback on tensions over race, highlighting a news story which told how Colombus Day had been canceled in Los Angeles
Created community: One fake account produced a vast number of people interested in it. It appeared to be part of an overall intention to create more racial tension
Anti-white rhetoric: Many of the examples published by Facebook were not explicitly about party politics but referenced Aztlan, the historical – or possibly mythical – home of the Aztec people. Its location is unclear but some people have placed it in the modern-day southwest United States and linked the Indian Wars to it
Also in the cache: This was one of the messages which Facebook released. It has not disclosed the entire output of the fake accounts
Also in the cache: One account was called ‘mindful being’ and the examples of its posting published by Facebook had no clear intent
Among the techniques used to cover their trails were virtual private networks, and internet phone services. None had Russian IP addresses, the unique number ever computer or server has which allows its location to be discovered.
However Facebook said that it had found links to some of the Facebook pages set up by the IRA in 2016.
One page, the Resisters account which was trying to organize a fake rally, had an IRA account as an administrator for eight minutes.
Facebook briefed lawmakers earlier this week on the discovery the New York Times reported. The company will hold a conference call later on Tuesday.
It said that 290,000 users followed at least one of the accounts.
The most followed Facebook pages were ‘Aztlan Warriors,’ ‘Black Elevation,’ ‘Mindful Being,’ and ‘Resisters’, the network said.
In total the accounts had 9,500 posts, all but one of them on Facebook, the other on Instagram.
They paid for around 150 advertisements, at a total cost of $11,000, some of which also ran on Instagram.
The ads were paid for in both U.S. and Canadian dollars, starting in April 2017 and ending in June 2018.
They also created 30 fake ‘events’, with one event – which Facebook did not name – having 4,700 people saying they were interested in going, and 1,400 users saying they would attend.
Because Facebook did not name the event, it is unclear if it happened or not.
Washington imposed punitive sanctions on Russia following U.S. intelligence agency conclusions that Moscow interfered to undermine the 2016 U.S. elections, one of the reasons U.S.-Russian relations are at a post-Cold War low. Both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have said, however, that they want to improve ties between the two nuclear powers.
Facebook disclosed in September that Russians under fake names had used the social network to try to influence U.S. voters in the months before and after the 2016 election, writing about divisive issues, setting up events and buying ads.
U.S. intelligence agencies said Russian state operators ran the campaign combining fake social media posts and hacking into Democratic Party networks, eventually becoming an effort to help Republican candidate Trump, who scored a surprise victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Over the past several months, the company has taken steps meant to reassure U.S. and European lawmakers that further regulation is unnecessary. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg says the company has 20,000 people working to police and protect the site.
Costs associated with that effort are part of the reason Facebook said last week that it expects its profit margins to decline.
The revelation caps a disastrous week for Facebook, which has seen its share price plunge and billions of dollars being wiped off its total market value and the personal wealth of Mark Zuckerberg, its founder.
But Facebook’s share price was not affected by the announcement, going up slightly in the course of the day from its $170.67 opening.
However it remains far from its peak price of $217.50 last week, which was followed by the plunge in value as it unveiled lower than expected user growth and lost $120 billion of value in just one day.
WHAT FACEBOOK SAID ABOUT NEW MEDDLING ATTEMPT
Today we removed 32 Pages and accounts from Facebook and Instagram because they were involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior.
This kind of behavior is not allowed on Facebook because we don’t want people or organizations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they’re doing.
We’re still in the very early stages of our investigation and don’t have all the facts — including who may be behind this.
But we are sharing what we know today given the connection between these bad actors and protests that are planned in Washington next week. We will update this post with more details when we have them, or if the facts we have change.
It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past.
We believe this could be partly due to changes we’ve made over the last year to make this kind of abuse much harder. But security is not something that’s ever done.
We face determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics. It’s an arms race and we need to constantly improve too.
It’s why we’re investing heavily in more people and better technology to prevent bad actors misusing Facebook — as well as working much more closely with law enforcement and other tech companies to better understand the threats we face.